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Alternative sites for new-build to replace sub-standard special needs school St Clement's in Dingwall flagged by local councillor

By Scott Maclennan

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Councillor Margaret Paterson...Picture: Gary Anthony. Image No..
Councillor Margaret Paterson...Picture: Gary Anthony. Image No..

A VETERAN Ross-shire councillor fed up with procrastination over replacement of a special needs school deemed unfit for purpose has suggested several possible sites to Highland Council in a bid to break a 26-year deadlock.

Margaret Paterson said lack of action over St Clement's Primary, a building which dates back to the Victorian era, had prompted her to suggest three possible sites for a new-build to Highland Council, all to no avail.

MSPs Maree Todd and Kate Forbes have asked Highland Council to share their plans.

Though not included in the capital plan, the school was raised at last week's Highland Council meeting following coverage of the issue in the North Star.

The existing buildings in the heart of the town lack suitable facilities for children with additional support needs and have been branded "like something out of Oliver Twist" by local MSP Kate Forbes.

Last August, chief executive Donna Manson, along with interim education chief Nicky Grant, vowed to deliver a plan for consultation by the end of December but failed to do so.

All four local ward councillors were asked to comment on the issue.

Christyna Fergusson with her daughter Moir, who attends St Clement's.
Christyna Fergusson with her daughter Moir, who attends St Clement's.

Cllr Margaret Paterson said:“I am very disappointed in the way that a new school for St Clement's is progressing as I am fully aware that a new school has been promised for at least 26 years.

“At the end of last year the chief executive and other officers promised us a plan as to how we could move forward as soon as possible but to be honest we are no further ahead.

“The council keeps stating that we need a site – I suggested two sites which were ruled out as too small. I have also suggested the latest one which I personally think is ideal – we have only had one meeting since Feb 4 where we were told that a meeting with the parents would follow as soon as a date can be agreed.

“I fully agree with Kate Forbes that St Clement's is not suitable for children with additional support needs and a new school should be top priority.

“I will continue to fight for this to happen and my heart’s desire is that it stays in Dingwall as everyone in the town loves the children and I know the children love being able to visit the shops and other premises in Dingwall and that is part of their schooling.

“I will be pushing for another meeting as soon as possible.”

Cllr Graham Mackenzie said:“I am hugely frustrated by the lack of action by Highland Council. I believe that it is disingenuous to believe that anybody can move this project on other than the council. No funding body that I know will release monies for any project until they know the scale of the proposal and where it is going to be.

“I have lost count of the number of times I have sat round a table with my ward colleagues and officers and have left those meetings filled with a sense of progress and excitement only to find myself back in the same situation a few months later.

“It is now over a year since prompt action was promised and notwithstanding the virus we appear to be no further forward. I believe we are now only left with one site option within the town and that is disappointing.

“The notion that the constituent expectations should be managed borders on the farcical. Their expectations have now been “managed” for more than twenty years.

“There is huge affection and supportfor the school in our ward and I feel that it is very important that it remains here. I know of nobody who doesn’t believe there should be a new build and it is imperative that the parents, staff and pupils of the school are supported by accelerated and prioritised work on this issue. Our young people deserve no less.”

Cllr Angela Maclean said: "In all our discussions with the Parent Council their preference has always been a new school to be built in Dingwall.

“Cllr Alister MacKinnon and I have looked at a number of possible sites over the past few years and most recently as ward members we have had discussions with two chief executives of Highland Council, we have also had a number of landowners come forward offering their land to be a possible school site.

“Highland Council officials have met with landowners and evaluated the options to ensure they would meet all the relevant criteria. This takes time and it narrows the options available and I can fully understand why parents are frustrated.

“What is important in my view is focussing on the pupils’ needs as opposed to location and Highland Council may have opportunities in the near future to add to some newly built schools or existing schools.

“Also any ASN schools, units or departments are always best attached to a mainstream school to further promote inclusion and this needs to be further investigated.

“However, these are opportunities the parents don’t wish to consider and they have shared their concerns with ward members and officers.

“It is regrettable that when the new Dingwall Academy was built 12 years ago St Clements school was not built on the same site and we would not be having this conversation today as the pupils would now have their new school.

“The teaching and learning in St Clement’s is outstanding, it is the condition of the school building that is in question. There is a set process for Highland Council to follow to consult with parents and future parents and the wider community on the options for a new school site.

“Until Highland Council is in a position to present possible site options then the consultation can not take place.

“It is shameful that Highland Council has allowed our most vulnerable children and young adults to go through their teaching and learning journey in such an outdated building.

“It is regrettable that as parents who know their children’s needs they are having to go from pillar to post to fight for their rights.

“We have only four special schools in Highland and I strongly believe that St Clement’s school should be treated as a special case when it comes to funding and not be ranked alongside other mainstream schools in need of replacement.

“Many Highland councillors have said that St Clement’s school is a priority so the sooner there is a suitable site the sooner we can move forward.”

St Clement's parent Christyna Fergusson thanked the North Star for highlighting the issue. She said she has no patience for the argument that the children would be better off as part of a mainstream school and denies that it was a realistic option when the new Dingwall Academy was being built.

“Highland Council can dress it up all they want but removing our children from a specialist setting would only place them at the same disadvantage they currently face with lack of facilities but for a different set of reasons," she said.

Related: Councillor slams 'lamentable' progress on Ross-shire special school

One year ago: parents voice concern at pace of progress on St Clement's

Have your say: Email us at newsdesk@hnmedia.co.uk

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